Much is made of Taiwan’s progressive values — and with good cause.

Last year, Taiwan enacted legislation granting same-sex couples the right to marry, becoming the first nation in Asia to do so.

Early in 2020, the government launched the Foundation for the Research and Development of Indigenous Languages to preserve and proliferate the neglected mother tongues of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes.

Both initiatives were undertaken with the same purpose in mind — to help a vulnerable minority gain equal footing with the majority.

Taiwan has not, however, extended that same level of care and concern to its largest yet least visible group of minorities: blue-collar migrant workers from Southeast Asia.

There are, at a rough estimate, 800,000 Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. They are employed in factories, on fishing boats, and in private homes as caregivers and as domestic helpers, mostly doing the jobs locals don’t want or aspire to.

A corrupt and broken brokerage system

Imagine yourself in the shoes of one of those 800,000 migrant workers.

From the beginning, you are operating from a disadvantage. Just to earn the right to work in Taiwan involves signing a contract with an employment broker — someone who serves as the liaison between employer and employee in Taiwan.

住宅商辦擬開放營造業移工 勞團反對(3)

Photo Credit: CNA

Migrant workers demonstrate in opposition to a proposal for employer-provided housing, saying that it's a boon for brokers and a distraction from more pressing needs like fair compensation, September 29, 2020.

Brokers earn the entirety of their fee not from the employer, but from you, the worker, charging a “service fee.” What that service might be, beyond introducing you to your employer and doing the requisite paperwork, you may never know.

What you do know is that a fee is charged monthly, whether the broker does anything or not. Chances are, after you sign on, you may never hear from your broker again. Unless, of course, your employer has a complaint.

The legal version of the contract you sign is in a language you likely cannot read or speak. You are perhaps given the last page and told to sign it, no questions asked. The contract binds you to a loan, most often between US$2,000 and US$3,000, about one-third to half of the average annual salary in the Philippines.

That money is what will get you to Taiwan, paying for everything from the flight to the paperwork that will get you an Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) and legal working status. In addition to the monthly service fee, you have to pay back a portion of the loan each month, with interest.

As for the ARC, you will have it, but you might never hold the card in your own hand. The broker will likely hang on to it, or your employer, along with your passport. “For safe keeping,” they’ll say.

You know what this really means. It means they own you. They hold the only proof of who you are, the documentation that states your sole reason to be in this country. In this game, serious as life and death itself, they hold all the cards.

There are more charges. Room and board must be paid, even if your room is nothing but a plank onboard the ship you work on, or a bunk in a factory dorm filled top to bottom, end to end, with hundreds of others.

穆斯林開齋節 移工北車外群聚(1)

Photo Credit: 中央社

Taipei Main Station's hall is a gathering point for many migrant workers. A ban on sitting in the hall as a Covid-19 prevention measure earlier this year forced many workers to meet outside of the station, pictured May 24, 2020.

Already coming from a position of lack, you watch these charges reduce your monthly pay to a fraction of what was advertised. You endure days, weeks, and months of long hours, no days off, fearful even to bring up the subject of a single day’s reprieve.

You remember what the broker said when the contract was put in front of you: “If you won’t sign it, there are plenty of others who will.”

This may not be the story for all Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. But it is one common enough throughout my years of reporting on migrant worker rights, and most recently in penning a book based on such stories, that I can sit here today and write it aided by little more than memory.

If it is so common that I can sit and type this out unaided, it begs the question not just of what can be done, but of what must be done, if Taiwan is to truly earn its title as a progressive democracy that respects human rights.

Lack of legal protection for caregivers

The Labor Standards Act (LSA), the sweeping body of laws governing workers in Taiwan both homegrown and foreign, leaves out many of those from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia who come to this land hoping to earn a better living than they can back home. Many workers come here not just to provide for themselves, but also to support their immediate and extended families as well.


Photo Credit: CNA

Calls for the abolition of the brokerage system have been a core demand of migrant workers' groups.

For doing the dangerous, dirty, and undesirable work that locals don’t want to do, Southeast Asian workers are left with less protection than that afforded to people with cushy office jobs and elephantine expatriate compensation packages. Migrant caregivers are not covered by the LSA and are not entitled to Taiwan’s minimum wage, nor are they able to claim basic rights such as a regular day off. Many are subjected to brutally long hours, often made to perform tasks outside their job description, and are all but barred from having anything in the way of a romantic relationship. Pregnancies among migrant workers are often met with two options from employment brokers: abortion or deportation.

Caregivers are at the mercy of the families that employ and house them. Some families treat their caregivers and helpers well. But the door to mistreatment and manipulation is left wide open for bad actors.

As a case in point, one of the first cases of caregiver abuse I reported on was that of Ruby Comida. In 2014, after paying a manpower agency in the Philippines US$1,800 to secure her a job in Taiwan. She was first placed in Taichung, under the employ of two brothers who needed assistance in caring for their aging parents. In reality, she was shuffled between various homes to do all manner of work, on-call virtually 24 hours a day.

When the younger of the two brothers propositioned Comida for sex, summoning her to his bedroom and playing a pornographic movie, instructing her to do to him what the actress was doing to the man on screen, she fled. After a few weeks at a shelter, she found another job, only to live out the nightmare of sexual abuse once more. In her story of being treated as an in-home sex worker, Comida is far from alone. Convictions for rape or sexual assault committed against caregivers are rare. Often, the victims are encouraged to settle out of court.

Taiwan’s bloody fishery industry

Migrant fishermen operating in the deep-water fleet have their legal protection overseen by Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency (FA) rather than the Ministry of Labor. The FA, which operates under the umbrella of the Council of Agriculture, is concerned more with the profitability and sustainability of the fishing industry and less with the welfare of those working on fishing vessels.

航經印尼海域沒掛國旗 屏東籍漁船被查扣

Photo Credit: CNA

A Pingtung registered fishing boat that was suspected of illegally passing through Indonesian waters, April 25, 2020.

These fishermen from overseas are left vulnerable to all manner of abuse, from physical to economic to psychological. Due to transshipment of fishermen on the high seas, there are no hard, accurate statistics on the number employed in Taiwan’s deep-water fleet. Fishermen are frequently made to endure forced labor, transferred illegally between boats without documentation.

Prosecution of human traffickers of the sea is made difficult, given that some ships fly flags of convenience, registered in countries such as Panama, where regulations are lax at best.

What is to be done?

The list is simple enough to write out, more difficult to imagine coming to fruition, and in light of the way things stand, nigh impossible to bring about.

But what was once thought impossible has never stopped Taiwan before. Its very existence as a free, fully democratic state was once an impossibility. And yet, here she stands.

The steps should be as follows:

  1. Abolish the brokerage system. End this glorified means of rent-seeking off of indentured servitude, by which thousands are cheated and robbed of their hard-earned pay.
  2. In place of the brokerage system, fully implement the direct-hire scheme. It already exists, though it is not made easy, and puts the onus for all paperwork and proper documentation on the employer. Employers have little reason to use the scheme, given they can hire a broker to handle all matters legal and bureaucratic. Also, it’s likely that much of the paperwork burden said to justify the existence of brokers can be eliminated, as brokers have a vested interest in keeping the process of immigration opaque and difficult to navigate.
  3. Amend the LSA to include all people, from all nations, working in all professions.

I ask you to put yourself in the position of one of those 800,000 because it is not the politicians who make the laws. They are merely the mechanism. Never was a law passed that was in the best interest of the people which was not demanded by the people themselves. Without that demand present, such laws that might come to protect those of us most vulnerable may never arrive. Why? Because the demand simply isn’t there. Not yet.

But there was a time when there was little demand for marriage equality.

There was an age when the languages and accents of the proud indigenous tribes were denigrated rather than celebrated. That has changed, thanks to the collective will of the young, the progressive, and the compassionate.

We are the voice that must raise itself for those who have not yet been granted the right to speak for themselves; not without fear of reprisal that would see them effectively banished.

Do not let that voice go silent. Do not let it remain unheard.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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